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Saturday, 14 July 2012

Review: McAnuff's Henry V an Impressive but not perfect Swan Song



From left to right: Timothy D. Stickney as Exeter, David Collins as Ely, Aaron Krohn as Henry V,
James Blendick as Centerbury, Tyrone Savage as Gloucester and Stephen Russell as Westmorland.
Photo by David Hou.

Henry V by William Shakespeare
Directed by Des McAnuff
Designed by Robert Brill and Paul Tazewell

The story: Newly crowned King Henry V (formerly the roguish Prince Hal), is convinced by an ancient law to reclaim certain provinces from the King of France. He gathers an army to invade France which includes old cronies from his wayward youth, although the King has forsworn them. He is outnumbered by a better-equipped French army, but the King rouses his troops again and again until they soundly defeat their French foes during the Battle of Agincourt.

One of the problems with this play is that Henry V (as Shakespeare has drawn him) is a bit of a bastard - he is a master manipulator, pitiless to former friends, a guy who passes the buck, but posesses some charismatic righteousness that convinces friend and foe of his might. But he is the only well-rounded character in a huge cast, so the actor playing him had better be able to carry it off.

One of the frustrations with this production is that Aaron Krohn, who plays Henry V, is very nearly sabotaged by it, so the audience does not get to see his power in the role until the second half of the play - and anyone who saw last year's The Homecoming knows he has power as an actor. But. Having to circle massive, often moving props and people while a distracting - and at times audibly painful - baseline underscores his speeches, several of which are delivered too quickly for comprehension, Mr. Krohn is lost in the set and swirl of activity around him, and some key speeches are lost with him. It is a case of art imitating life - just as the French underestimate Henry V, director Des McAnuff has underestimated the strength of his cast. Again.

Aaron Krohn as Henry V.
Photo by David Hou.
Because when left to his own devices, without props moving around him, without a musical score, and allowed to slow down, Mr. Krohn delivers a perfectly wonderful King Harry, manipulating the text as well as Henry manipulates his men. At intermission one asks, "Why is the high constable of France worried about this guy?" By the end of the play, one thinks, "Ah. That's why. But why didn't we see this guy sooner?" Indeed.

Mr. McAnuff likes to do things BIG, Broadway-big. So the set is impressive, complete with a fully articulated drawbridge that is ramp, platform and balcony all in one, the French and English banners cover the entire stage, and there are (count 'em) nine trap doors in the raked stage that act as prop-movers, fire pits, and execution chambers. Very exciting stuff. But it is too big and too exciting, riding roughshod over the actors trying to perform - Lucy Peacock does not need a soundtrack to evoke sympathy for Falstaff's death. Performances are wasted, critical moments are lost, and so in the end is Mr. McAnuff's own stated purpose, to show the moral ambiguity that occurs in the "fog of war".

Tom Rooney as Pistol and Aaron Krohn as Henry V.
Photo by David Hou

That being said, there are wonderful moments of theatre. The St. Crispin Day speech takes place at the very edge of the stage, giving great intimacy to his words, the audience becoming the main body of Henry's troops. The arguments between Harry and a soldier (played with great conviction by LukeHumphrey) are the only moments where the King is called upon to be accountable for his soldiers' lives - and the only time we see Mr. Krohn let Henry's confidence falter. The wooing scene of the French princess Catherine is sweet and funny and entirely human (he starts when her father reappears, like any man proposing marriage). The entire cast is the chorus but Mr. Krohn is not included until the end, and so he gives his own epilogue. It is a smart, emphatic way to end the show, given that the epilogue is an anti-climactic telling of how France was lost again, by the very next generation.

Deborah Hay as Alice and Bethany Jilliard as Catherine.
Photo by David Hou.
There are many performances of note, too - Randy Hughson's whimpering Bardolph as he is about to be hanged by his old friend is particularly gut-wrenching (as is his feat of hanging over the audience far longer than is comfortable for either). Ben Carlson's Fluellen - perhaps the only other rounded character - evokes nobility and a better understanding of the rules of war, and easily provokes the laughter that war needs at times. Tom Rooney as a somewhat menacing Pistol does likewise, as does Gareth Potter as an overly pompous Dauphin with a creepy laugh, and Sophia Walker plays the unnamed Boy as a child in the midst of war with all  dread and fear a child should have in that situation.  Juan Chioran lends a quiet dignity and air of respect to Mountjoy the French messenger, Michael Blake gives the audience a memorable High Constable, and Bethany Jilliard and Deborah Hay are a true duet of relief as the Princess and her broken-English speaking lady-in-waiting. Finally, Snow White's evil queen has nothing on Claire Lautier as the Queen of France with her venomous warning shots to the young King.

All in all Henry V is an impressive production, but one that could have been great - had the actors been given some breathing room.

And for those who are confused by the massive Canadian flag unfurled at the end - it is a nod to our French and English heritage, and just as manipulative to a patriotic crowd as any of Henry's speeches. Well done, Mr. McAnuff.

Henry V continues in repertory at the Festival Theatre until September 29th.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Review: Hirsch


Alon Nashman as John Hirsch in Hirsch.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

created and conceived by Alon Nashman and Paul Thompson
Directed by Paul Thompson
Starring Alon Nashman

The story: Loosely based on the life of John Hirsch, a Hungarian Jew, Holocaust escapee, theatrical visionary, head of CBCs drama department, and one-time artistic director of the Stratford Festival.

One hears stories, volunteering at the Festival, of previous productions and directors that made an indelible mark on Stratford's stages and in patrons' memories. One such person was John Hirsch - by all accounts (and according to a new biography) a firebrand of a man who could reduce actors to tears even while creating works of theatrical wonder that had critics raving, and who pulled the Stratford Festival away from an abyss of financial oblivion so it could go on and eventually celebrate a 60th anniversary. Today, in fact.

Alon Nashman and Paul Thompson's production does not pretend to be a biography, although even recent Stratford Festival attendees are sure to recognize some of the names dropped in recreated moments of Hirsch's career. Neither Mr. Nashman nor Mr. Thompson pull punches about the administration in charge of the Stratford Festival during Hirsch's tenure as artistic director, nor at Hirsch's tyrannical scoffing of their budgets.   Less familiar will be moments from Hirsch's early life, as a 13-year old who had to grow up fast on the streets of Europe after his family perished in the camps of the Holocaust. Nashman and Thompson do not dwell on these sorrows, but they do show how Hirsch's survival informed the productions he directed. Survivor's guilt, they call it. Silent, mind-blowing
horror in the face of unspeakable atrocities.

Nashman takes on the role of Hirsch in an innovative way, moving between Nashman-the-actor who narrates anecdotes of the man, and Hirsch-the-character. In one split-personality moment of metatextuality, Hirsch-the-character becomes Hirsch-the-man, furious at the way Nashman-the-actor is telling his story. He hurls Nashman-the-actor across the stage and stalks out. Nashman is forced to go after him, and the stage is left bare while the audiences listens to two distinct voices argue offstage. Nashman-the-actor returns, pissed off with Hirsch-the-man, and proceeds to tell the rest of the story his own way. It is staging brilliance.
Add c Alon Nashman as John Hirsch in Hirsch.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

In terms of sheer storytelling and theatricality, this is not a performance to be missed, and anyone who treads the boards will have an even deeper feeling of connection to this unapologetic, passionate director.

Yes, one hears these stories and may well wish for a time-travel device to witness Hirsch's production of The Dybbuk or Tempest oneself - that not being possible, Nashman and Thompson give us the next best thing in this labour of love to portray a difficult man, a man who insisted on telling our own stories, who laid the groundwork for Corner Gas, Little Mosque on the Prairie, and a host of other truly Canadian television and theatre productions.  

Hirsch continues in repertory at the Studio Theatre until September 14th.
Alon Nashman as John Hirsch in Hirsch.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Review: The Best Brothers


John Beale as Kyle Best, and Daniel MacIvor as Hamilton Best.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.
Directed by Dean Gabourie
Starring Daniel Macivor and John Beale

The story: Hamilton and Kyle Best have just lost their mother in a freak accident, and as they prepare for the aftermath of obituaries, visitations and will-readings, their relationships with their mother, each other and their past is revealed and explored. Not without a last word or two from their mother though.

One would think that the above synopsis is not the lightest fare for theatre-goers. One would be wrong. Because while the subject may sound morose, the treatment given it by multiple-award-winning playwright Daniel MacIvor has more humour than pathos and thus audience tears are generated by uproarious laughter and not shared sorrow.

This is not to say there are not moments of quiet empathy, either. In fact the balance may tip slightly towards the funny, but those moments highlight for anyone who has lost a loved-one suddenly, the feeling of surreality, the ridiculousness of having to decide between serving sandwiches or cake at a funeral reception. The brothers' reconciliation, an acceptance of each other and themselves, is equally poignant, yet touched by humour.

In this two-hander with three characters on a minimal set, Mr. MacIvor plays Hamilton, the straight-laced, tightly-wound architect son; John Beale plays Kyle, the gay, charmingly indecisive realtor son. Their comic timing together is fantastic, Mr. MacIvor playing the straight-man to Mr. Beale's verbal pratfalls, but like Burns and Allen each earn the laughs his own way. Each actor also takes a turn becoming Ardith "Bunny" Best, their mother. A big green straw hat, green lace gloves and barely altered voice is all they need to create the transformation, and we get a view of her life about which  her sons never seem to be aware. Through her we see that her boys are each more like her - in different ways - than either suspects. Director Dean Gabourie can be thanked for keeping both characters from becoming cariactures.

Daniel MacIvor as Ardith Best.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.
For a world premiere there is not much wrong with this play and its performers at all - except for a slight shift in focus which keeps it from becoming completely coherent. As the play draws to a close there is more emphasis on an unseen character, Ardith's pet dog, Enzo. A thorn in both sons' sides, the dog illustrates a woman coming to understand unconditional love, and will thrill pet-lovers everywhere - but coming in the last two or three scenes one may wonder what the play was really about. A woman loving her dog more than her sons? Understanding between brothers? Understanding their mother? An understanding of unconditional love? Between brothers? All of the above?  
Daniel MacIvor and John Beale as Hamilton and Kyle Best.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

No question, this question does not keep the production from being thoroughly laugh-out-loud enjoyable, just a bit puzzling. Aim to see it for the former and have an open discussion on the latter, and hope we will be seeing more works by Daniel MacIvor on these stages in the future (what took them so long, anyway?). The Best Brothers continues in repertory at the Studio Theatre until September 16th.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Review: Panych and Cast Weave New Spell in Wanderlust



Tom Rooney as Robert Service.
Photo by David Hou.
Wanderlust, book and additional lyrics by Morris Panych
Directed by Morris Panych; Music, Orchestration and Musical Direction by Marek Norman
Based on the poems by Robert Service

The story: Robert Service is a bank ledgerkeeper who does not quite fit in. His mind wanders from keeping numbers to adventures in the Yukon (even though the gold rush is almost over), and he composes poems of his imagined adventures. However, he cannot quite bring himself to act on this wanderlust, because the woman he loves, Louise, has engaged herself to another man - Dan McGrew.

Morris Panych is no stranger to adapting and premiering brand-new works for the stage, having done so with The Trespassers and MobyDick for the Stratford Festival in recent years. In this case his commission was to use the poems of Robert Service - Scottish-born but claimed by Canada as a native son - to tell a fictional but highly entertaining story of Service's pre-Yukon life and what might have inspired some of those poems. To boot, he also sets them to music, composed by Marek Norman.

The result would make the story-teller poet proud, the music and framework honouring not just his words but the spirit of the man, his sense of wonder and the spirit of adventure he immortalized in his famous rhyming poems.

Panych assembled a master-class cast, starting with the ever-startling Tom Rooney as Robert Service. Despite a couple of verbal opening-night stumbles, Mr. Rooney recreates the poet as a quirky, quick-witted dreamer, both lacking ambition and anxious to get away (in fact, Service hated working; in his earliest wanderings he would often work just long enough to earn boat or train fare to the next port of call). A portrait of a man living perhaps too much in his own head, nevertheless Service's love of poetry and his yearning for the Yukon are palpable in Mr. Rooney's performance, as is his desperate love for (the largely fictional) Louise.

Robin Hutton as Louise and Tom Rooney as Robert Service.
Photo by David Hou.
Less palpable is Louise's love for him; as played by Robin Hutton, Louise remains something of an enigma until the very end - she obviously cares for Robert, but has agreed to marry the arrogant assistant bank-manager; it is this betrayal that Panych imagines inspired "The Shooting of Dan McGrew". Panych gives Louise a desperate wish of her own that is not often seen in Service's poetry, which allows Ms. Hutton to create a sympathetic  character with whom modern audiences can identify. The duet she and Mr. Rooney share ("Unforgotten") contains some of the sweetest moments of the play, depicting how two people can be closer while remaining apart.

Dan McGrew is brought to near larger-than-life proportions by Dan Chameroy, who gives the character no redeeming qualities whatsoever - McGrew is untouched by sentiment, is a bully and provokes his fellow employees to mock Service whenever possible. Yet Mr. Chameroy is such a charismatic singer and performer that one cannot help liking McGrew just a tiny bit, even when he admits he his only marrying Louise because he wants her, not because he loves her.
Dan Chameroy and Tom Rooney as Dan McGrew and Robert Service.
Photo by David Hou.

Randy Hughson plays that other well-known Service character, Sam McGee. (Panych imagines that Service dreamed up this poem, and in waking up with the very-much-alive Mr. McGee in front of him, he screams like a little girl.) Mr. Hughson has the happy gift of dry, gruff joviality that can get a laugh sometimes merely with a look. It is a shame his voice and harmonica-playing is lost under the rest of the orchestra at times, because he is worth hearing.

Randy Hughson as McGee.
Photo by David Hou.
Other actors that deserve kudos include Ken James Stuart as the toady, eager Noah; Xuan Fraser as the uptight ledgerkeeper Blount, Troy Adams for his near show-stopping singing narration of The Shooting of Dan McGrew, and Lucy Peacock who does a drunk, lusty former madam with aplomb and more than one touch of subtle bitterness.

Lucy Peacock (left) and members of the Wanderlust company.
Photo by David Hou.
Panych's staging is brilliant. Using desks and office supplies - literal trappings for Robert Service -  Ken MacDonald's set, the cast and Dana Osbourne's costumes are transformed into sled dogs, rag-time pianos, billowing clouds of snow, the wreck of a boat on Lake Lebarge (thanks to choreographer Diana Coatsworth), and the flames of its makeshift crematorium. The lighting, sound and video effects (by Alan Brodie, Jim Neil and Sean Nieuwenhuis respectively) are all remarkable, from the projected images of a snowstorm, to the soaring shadow of an eagle, to the roar of flames or wind. This creates new worlds within the confines of the primary set - that of a bank. It all works to underscore one of themes of the musical, and that of theatre itself - that a world of adventure can be imagined and inspired wherever you are.

Members of the company in Wanderlust.
Photo by David Hou.
Cast, book, staging, music and design - they all work in this show in a cohesive, beautiful unit which is fantastic for a world premiere. This musical is at times hilarious, at times poignant, and at all times entertaining.  If it has you booking a ticket for Whitehorse or reciting parts of Robert Service's poems, I wouldn't be surprised.

Wanderlust continues in repertory at the Tom Patterson Theatre until September 28th, 2012.

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